I had a remarkable telephone conversation with a Nigerian editor a few weeks before Nigeria’s 2011 general elections. The man, a strong supporter of Goodluck Jonathan’s, rang specifically to whip up my enthusiasm for Mr. Jonathan’s candidacy for president. I demurred, and took care to explain why I was far from impressed.
“Jonathan has been Nigeria’s acting and [with Umaru Yar’Adua’s death] full president for a year,” I reminded the editor. “He has nothing to show for it,” I argued. “So what’s going to change if he gets elected?”
My interlocutor, without breaking a stride or adjusting his tone, said: “Jonathan has done little or nothing because he’s serving out Yar’Adua’s tenure. Once he gets his own tenure, he’ll do great things.”
“Are you serious?” I asked, shocked by the sheer illogic of the man’s claim.
He was, he assured me, and then proceeded to lecture me on [what some Nigerians would call] “the realities on ground.” My friend’s peculiar argument was that Mr. Yar’Adua’s inner circle would have felt affronted had Jonathan tried to accomplish anything. That’s because Mr. Jonathan was still on Yar’Adua time, and needed to respect Yar’Adua’s do-nothing agenda. According to the editor, members of Yar’Adua sanctum sanctorum would have been driven to venomous rage if President Jonathan had sought to work, work and work instead of remaining in snooze mode. “Yar’Adua’s people would have finished Jonathan,” this friend surmised.
“For doing some of the work that needs to be done in Nigeria?” I asked. “For taking on tasks that cried for attention – and for accomplishing a few things?”
“My brother, you don’t understand how Nigeria works,” the editor said.
It was a peculiarly Nigerian brand of coup de grace. Question anything irrational about the country’s politics or ethical environment, and some smart aleck is apt to accuse you of being “an idealist,” “out of touch with the realities on ground,” or “ignorant of the way things are done in Nigeria.”
I refused to buy the crap. “So how does Nigeria work?” I challenged.
“I’ve been trying to tell you,” the man said, a tinge of impatience in his tone. “If Jonathan took over from Yar’Adua and started to do positive things, then Yar’Adua’s people would have come out against him.”
“But Nigeria doesn’t belong to the Yar’Adua people.”
“Ah, they control the levers of power. And you can’t blame them if they wage a war against Jonathan.”
“Because Jonathan is still operating on Yar’Adua’s time.”
“Then we might as well invite Yar’Adua to continue presiding over Nigeria from the grave!”
“That’s funny, my brother,” the editor guffawed.
“But I’m not joking,” I protested. “It’s either that Jonathan has failed to lead for one year. Or, if what you say is correct, then Yar’Adua – who is dead and buried – is still running Nigeria.”
The man laughed, less from embarrassment than bemusement. His political sociology of Nigeria made eminent sense to him, and he couldn’t grasp why I was impervious to “reason.”
“Anyway, sha,” he said, “I know that Jonathan will transform Nigeria once he’s given his own mandate.”
Once “transformation,” a much-abused, too-easily bandied about word entered the conversation, I had to change tacks. “You don’t know what you claim to know,” I said testily. “In fact, I know you can’t know it.”
Nigeria’s political office holders, military and civilian – the mediocre lot of them – are the greatest transformers in the world! Talk (of transformation) comes extremely cheap to them. They’ve totally “transformed” Nigeria into a hopeless, dismal, grim space. That’s why I had to force the editor to retreat from that hollow word, to leave “transformation” out of the conversation. Instead, I was determined to further expose the emptiness of his claim that the only thing that stood between Jonathan and the unleashing of genius was a made-for-Jonathan mandate.
I offered what I thought a pertinent, illumining scenario. “Imagine that a lack-luster CEO dies and some man is hired to take the vacant post for one year in an acting capacity. Let’s say the acting CEO turns out to be as incompetent as his deceased predecessor. Let’s say that, at the end of the year, the board of directors sits down to review the acting CEO’s performance. Do you think the board would rush to reward the man with a permanent appointment once he explains that he was awaiting confirmation before turning in superb service?”
“You can’t compare a nation and a company,” the editor protested.
“You have a point,” I quickly conceded. Then I asked, “Which is more complex – a company or a country?”
“A country,” he said.
“Then I’d insist that it’s even more urgent to have tested, proven leaders running a country. Wouldn’t you agree?”
He agreed, and then quickly added that he knew Jonathan would be an extraordinary president (once liberated from the encumbrance of occupying another man’s term).
Mr. Jonathan did get his own term more than a year ago – by means that the Supreme Court has upheld as legitimate. Yet, if the president understands what it means to be an engaged, effective, problem-solving, people-inspiring leader, he has so far done an excellent job of hiding it. There’s a pervasive sense, borne out by an incessant parade of toxic events, that Nigeria has never been in worse shape than it is today. Yet, the man who promised Nigerians a robust healthcare system, new bridges, a reformed educational system, an end to kidnapping and terror attacks, a rehabilitated rail grid, a revamped power sector, etc, etc appears just as confounded as when he occupied Yar’Adua’s time.
I haven’t had time to revisit the whole debate with my editor friend, but I’ve had lots of conversations since with others on what’s shaping up to be Nigeria’s most frustrating and despairing pass. And – just as one might have predicted – there’s a new mantra in town, a new excuse, a brand new refrain to explain the abdication of leadership. And here’s the absurd new apologia: President Jonathan is set to work, but the North (or Boko Haram or some politicians) won’t let him.
Mr. Jonathan relishes the excuse, and is sure pushing it. Last week, he told a meeting of his party that violent attacks by Boko Haram have impeded him. He also sought to blame his and Nigeria’s woes on opposition parties. “The opposition parties want to drown the PDP. We believe that if we do not have a party as robust as the PDP, probably, the republic would have collapsed…But the PDP, even though we control the Federal Government, we operate a system that even the opposition fly higher than us (sic). They abuse us more, but we allow it. It is the PDP’s handling of the affairs of the country that is stabilizing democracy in the country.”
In the president’s rambling statement, we detect the outlines of a new rationalization of failure. There are two significant elements here. One, Mr. Jonathan is setting the grounds to blame everybody and everything else for his inadequacies as a leader. Two, he’s seeking to re-set the terms of the debate by declaring that the very survival of Nigeria’s nascent (nasty) democracy is the defining accomplishment of his presidency.
It’s a tested, dependable ruse. Former Nigerian dictator Ibrahim Babangida claimed that his structural adjustment program, whose wretched implementation gutted the country’s middle class, had laid the foundations for the country’s economic greatness. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo has beat his chest and proclaimed that his crowning achievement was to hold Nigeria as a corporate entity.
Nearly a year and a half into his mediocre term, President Jonathan is preparing us for his grand excuse. His canard is virtually writ large: “Boko Haram (and opposition parties) made me not do a thing I promised.”
Nigerians know better. They know that Boko Haram and opposition parties never issued a fatwa against any contractor caught building a second bridge in Onitsha; it was Mr. Jonathan who retreated from that pledge. Boko Haram and other political parties never demanded that Jonathan refrain from prosecuting those who plundered Nigeria’s oil subsidy funds. It’s the president’s call to let the unconscionable criminals be. Nobody ever stopped the president from sending bills to the National Assembly to curb the worst excesses of corruption. Neither Boko Haram nor the opposition ever stipulated that Nigerian roads, hospitals and universities should be left in their abominable states; Mr. Jonathan, simply, elected to do – nothing!
Far from using his own term to work for Nigerians, the president has decided, it seems, to be just as detached, indifferent and incompetent as his immediate predecessor. But Mr. Jonathan must not shoulder all the blame. After all, many Nigerians (millions, going by the tally from the presidential polls) bought the line that the man was an outstanding leader waiting (for his own mandate) to lift Nigeria into the developmental stratospheres. In that defiance of logic that carries a Nigerian imprimatur, millions of us said, “We reject the PDP but embrace Jonathan.” Many said he was the right man for the job.
Yet, it was not as if the man descended from outer space. His political record was there for all to see. He’d been an undistinguished deputy governor, a middling governor, and a nondescript stand-in for Yar’Adua. I wonder what’s coming next: “Give him a second term, and Nigeria will turn into a Brazil!”?
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